The Smaller they Are…

…the harder they can be to write. Don’t you think?

But seriously - how cool is this? Image:

But seriously – how cool is this?

I’m not talking about the physical act of using tiny writing or minuscule* print, of course. But you knew that. I’m talking about short stories, and – firstly – how hard they are to write, just in general, but also how hard it can be to switch your brain between different types of work.

A while back I wrote a piece about my brain ‘switching gear’ and beginning to think in terms of short stories, having been programmed up to that point to think only in terms of book-length projects. I thought, in my naïvety, that this was a huge breakthrough. I was under the impression that my brain would now find it easy to hop between the two, and I could happily change gear whenever it liked.

Nothing’s ever as easy as that, though. You’d think I’d have worked that out by now, wouldn’t you?

Anyway. I’ve been writing short stories for the last few days (I wrote three yesterday, so editing will be needed today), and it’s been a very strange experience. The first story had to be 500 words long, and for whatever reason I managed that reasonably well. Writing it was a bit like watching a gas in an enclosed vessel – it expanded to fit the the space available to it, settling into the nooks and crannies without a problem. The idea for the story (as with a lot of the flash pieces that I write) was centred around a particularly emotional, dramatic event in a person’s life, and I felt like the 500 word limit was tight enough to focus the story on what was important, and long enough to hint at the character’s history and future. So, that was fine.

Then, I moved on to another story, also flash (just about) at 1,000 words. The story, in this case, had to be prompted by an image, and as the idea began to grow in my mind, I sat down to start writing it. And, completely without warning, I started to feel dwarfed by the immensity of the 1,000 word limit. It was like I was standing in the centre of a huge, frozen field, so large that I couldn’t see the ditches on any side – the white, hard land just rolled away out of my eyeshot in all directions. I felt marooned, and a bit scared. And I’m a person for whom finding words has never been a problem. Normally, I run to the verbose. I’ve written novels! I’m used to the long form.

But 1,000 words scared the living daylights out of me, yesterday.

I couldn’t understand this. I’d never felt anything like it before. I mean, think about it. Being afraid of a word count? Completely unsure of how you were going to structure a story in order to fill the word count adequately? It sounds ridiculous, because it is. But there you are. That’s how I reacted yesterday to the task of writing a piece of long flash fiction. I did write the story in the end, and I’m going to revisit it today to see how I can improve it; then, I think I’m going to have to write another, just to get my brain to limber up. Perhaps it’s not so much the differing word counts that bamboozle me, but the rapid swapping from one to the other. I guess, just as your muscles start to seize up as you get older, so does your brain.

Do you think it’s possible that some writers are naturally better at short stories than novels? Or, even, that some people who write short stories are better at certain types of short story than others? Logically, there’s not a lot of difference between short stories and longer pieces. You need character, plot, motivation, drama, crisis and resolution in a written piece, no matter how long it is. So, it shouldn’t really matter. But I think it does.

The important lesson I learned yesterday, anyway, was this: don’t assume that because you’ve done something once that you can do it again, effortlessly, whenever the mood takes you. Writing, like everything else, needs practice. You need to switch it up – change genres, change styles, change narrative voice, change authorial perspective – to avoid over-developing a particular writing muscle. I tend to get stuck in first-person narration, so it takes a huge effort for me to use third-person. I tend to use present tense, so I need to work on that. And, I’ve learned, I tend to get comfortable in a particular length of short story; getting out of that comfort zone can leave me very disoriented. So, to avoid that, there’s only one thing to do.

Write more.




Happy Thursday! I hope, wherever you are, that life is treating you well.



*Not in the palaeographical sense, either! I just mean ‘really, really small.’ There was a style of handwriting known as minuscule in the Middle Ages – click here to read about it. I’m too much of a nerd to write this post without mentioning it, and making the distinction. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, sometimes it *does* hurt to be this pedantic.

16 thoughts on “The Smaller they Are…

  1. anna3101

    I don’t think there’s anything more difficult than writing short stories with a limited number of words. I would prefer anything to that. I could do a thriller, I could make a very melodramatic romance, I’d even go for a historical book. But count your words? I’ve always hated that.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      It’s actually really liberating, normally, and it can be so useful for developing skills like language use, economy of phrase, characterisation and setting. Because you have so few words, they all have to count, and you can’t waste anything. It helps to focus the mind, and – of course – a challenge is always good.

      I thought, before I started writing them, that they’d be monstrously difficult, too. But I’ve found them useful, and the challenge is (normally!) worthwhile. 🙂

      1. anna3101

        I cannot really agree 😉 What if something important has to be cut out just because it will be a word too many? I think that word counting limits imagination and deforms some stories.

        I really can’t make myself do it…

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Ah, but you see, the skill is making sure nothing important is left out, while still keeping to the word count… But I did think the same as you, until I tried it. It’s a slightly different perspective, I suppose, to writing a longer piece – the focus has to be narrower. But everything else remains the same. Anyway, I find them very useful and exciting to write. Normally. When my brain doesn’t pull a muscle in the process. 🙂

      3. anna3101

        By the way, you look totally different from the way I though you would! Honestly, I had a completely different vision in my head 🙂 A bit like reading a book and then going to see the film and then “No way! The heroine cannot be tall with dark hair because I imagined she would be blonde and short!”

      4. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Hahaha! Yeah. Well, I’m going to assume I’m much better looking in real life than I was in your head. 😀

      5. anna3101

        It’s not about the beauty really 🙂 Just the overall impression. I somehow thought you were blonde, with a different haircut and bit older 😉

      6. SJ O'Hart Post author

        I look younger than I am – I always have. And no. Definitely not blonde. I wonder why I gave you a ‘blonde’ vibe? Interesting. 🙂

      7. anna3101

        I don’t have any prejudice against blondes though. I don’t like people judging other people by how they look. Sometimes I like to dress all fluffy, pinkie and cute just so someone stupid enough to judge me by that gets a bit of a shock when he finds out I’m not only about Barbie dolls and shopping 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Ah, now! Thanks for saying so, but they may not be *good* stories. It’s all about quality, not quantity, as you know yourself! Thank you for paying me a visit. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Marfa Lights and Other Stories | The Ranting Papizilla

  3. Elisabeth

    I actually find novellas to be much easier. But short stories…no, I just don’t do those. I keep thinking “but what if this happened next? Ooh, and that, too! Oh, let’s have dragons turn up!” Kudos to you for your productivity! 😉

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Dragons tend to make everything fabulously complicated, all right. 🙂 If you’re a fan, then maybe the Flash! Friday competition might be worth checking out, even if all you do is read the entries. The lady who runs it is a dragon obsessive, and every week at least one story features dragons in all their glory.

      Thanks for paying a visit, and thanks for commenting!


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